Bats, Man! On Spelunky’s Killing Joke

Spelunky is, I think, better designed than any other roguelike, platformer, or roguelike platformer. It’s not because it’s a work of genre revivalism. It’s not the procedural generation, which jumbles level geometry upon every funny, frequent, fist-shaking demise.

It’s the bats. The bat, found in its opening world, is a dimly flapping lense through which the entire game can be better appreciated.

Every journey into Spelunky’s random levels contains the same set of deadly obstacles. Spikes, dart traps, snakes, spiders, giant spiders, those bats and so on.

Unlike the level geometry, enemy behaviour is consistent: dart traps always fire from the same range and do the same amount of damage, spiders always jump the same distance, and the bats – those bats! – always flap towards you at the same predictable angle, blindly bumping into anything in their way.

Every game has defined rules, which help give the player a sense of progress as they learn and master them, but I think it’s rare for simple rules to complement one another as well as they do in Spelunky, and for them to do such a good job of directing and rewarding the player’s actions.

Here is what happens: you’re moving around the floor of a layer of a level and you don’t notice the bat on the ceiling. It wakes up and starts to flap down towards you. It comes at you slowly at a sharp angle, moving for the top of your head.

Your basic weapon in Spelunky is the whip. It – like most of the other weapons – is designed to fire horizontally. You can’t use it to attack upwards, to where the bat is slowly drifting towards your hat.

So what are you going to do? This is what you’re going to do the first time (and what I did the first hundred times, because I’m a slow learner): you’re going to run away, as fast as you can, in a panic. And then you’re going to die, not because the bat reached you, but because in your panic you didn’t notice the that dart trap or that spike pit or some other enemy that was waiting for you.

Eventually you’ll gain experience and learn not to panic, but you’ll still do much the same thing. To kill the bat, you need to either get to higher ground where you can jump on it or you need to put distance between you and it so as to make its angle of descent shallow enough that when it reaches you, it’s in front of you and you can whip it.

The bat is slow, unable to pathfind except by flying in a straight line, and only does a single point of damage, but it’s a tool for steering player behaviour and pushing you towards engaging with the rest of the game’s dangerous terrain.

Every other enemy or trap in the game does something similar.

Dart traps, for example, fire almost as soon as they’re visible and if you’re sprinting it’s unlikely you’ll have time to react, dodge, or whip it out of the air. You’d be forgiven for deciding to walk everywhere.

Spiders, too, push and pull you. They leap a fixed distance every few seconds. You can run out of their range, but you want to get close enough to whip or jump on them. There is a safe zone directly beside them, where they will jump over you without touching and you can turn and kill them as they land, but the risk lies in whether you can reach that precise safe zone in time.

Taken as a set, it’s obvious that what Spelunky is doing is creating systems of tension. The bat makes you want to run, but the dart traps make you want to walk. The spiders make you want to get far away and close at the same time. Put them all in the same area and now the player has decisions to make, each one meaningful because choosing incorrectly means death.

That these systems are all rule-based means that every scenario can be predicted. You can plan, using your mental map of the game’s rules to decide what you’re going to do, and then try to execute that plan. There’s tension here too, between plan and execution.

I’ve played Spelunky so much, and its rules are so readable, that I can now close my eyes and continue to play it in my own mind. Not just imagine it, but play it, and simulate all the outcomes exactly as the computer would. I can claim the same of only a handful of other games. Tetris is one.

I see in Spelunky the nexus between the Miyamoto school of game design which is about simple, clean, hard rules, and the simulation-ist school which is about complexity, choice, emergent scenarios.

I see in Spelunky a game whose design is based around such perfect, platonic ideals that it can be used as a way of identifying the design of every other game around it. It’s a teaching aid, wearing its design so clearly on its sleeve that you come out the other side with a better set of critical tools with which to think about behaviour-shaping elements in every other videogame.

Mostly, in Spelunky, I see the bats.

[The header image of this post is of the Spelunky Blue Frog mod, which does a good job of conveying the purity and brilliance of Spelunky’s rules. Even when everything looks like a frog, you know when it’s a bat.]

This article was originally published as part of, and thanks to, the RPS Supporter program.

27 Comments

  1. padger says:

    Never quite managed to swallow the Spelunky thing. Just not my sort of game, perhaps.

    Which is a shame because “That these systems are all rule-based means that every scenario can be predicted. You can plan, using your mental map of the game’s rules to decide what you’re going to do, and then try to execute that plan. There’s tension here too, between plan and execution.” is what makes most games work for me.

    Great piece, Graham Smith!

  2. Premium User Badge

    Bluerps says:

    One thing I hate in Spelunky is when I find one of the Indiana Jones style giant-stone-ball-and-golden-idol traps, because I can never resist to trigger it. The problem with that is not that I then have to dodge the stone ball, because that is usually fairly easy to do, but that the ball rolls through the level and destroys everything in its path (which is the part I love) until it inevitably hits a shop and angers the shopkeeper (which is the part I hate).

    In my games of Spelunky there is a high correlation between finding a stone trap and dying to shopkeeper bullets (though I suspect I share that problem with other Spelunky players).

    • alchatron says:

      You can sort of avoid that by changing the direction the ball rolls in. It will roll in the direction you happen to be standing relative to its position when it drops; a lot of times if you get to hit the bedrock wall immediately most of its momentum will die off before it reaches a shop.

      • Premium User Badge

        Bluerps says:

        Oh, I did not know that. Useful knowledge, thanks!

        • Suits says:

          Considering a golden idol from the Mines is worth as little as a single ghosted gem, not worth the risk no. Since you can anger the shopkeepers while getting nothing out of it and potentially crush a key or chest.

    • Suits says:

      Rationally the golden idols in the Mines are not worth taking at all. The reward is but a mere $5000 (i.e. a single gem ghosted). Versus angering the shopkeepers for practically no gain. Angering them when you at least get a jetpack or 3 bomb boxes or something has a way better chance of getting a succesful run. And potentially you can even smash items for the udjat eye if they happen to be in the boulder’s path. Jungle and Ice Caves idols are usually easy to get and I don’t often go for the Temple ones and almost never for Hell’s.

  3. jezcentral says:

    Bats have been evil ever since Atari’s Adventure.

  4. Continuity says:

    Graham you need to revisit your bat strategy, the optimal method for dispatching a bat is a well timed jump-whip, i.e. jumping and whipping at the apex of your jump, timed perfectly to intersect with the incoming bat. Running for higher ground or to get a shallower angle is strictly noob stuff.

  5. liquidsoap89 says:

    I’m pretty sure The Binding of Isaac is actually the best Roguelike. There’s a pie chart somewhere that proves it.

    • NailBombed says:

      Binding Of Isaac:Rebirth will be > Binding Of Isaac: the slow-ass flash game – but that’s still great. Spelunky? Also great. Risk Of Rain? Brilliant. FTL? AWESOME. Dungeons Of Dredmor? Hell yeah. DoomRL? Ye gods, what a game.

      Music to go along with this:

    • Lambchops says:

      I loved BoI but Spelunky for me is the better game.

      Even taking vanilla Isaac (before the expansion made it too bloated and long and, in my view at least, messed with the balance) there’s a lot more reliance on the luck of the draw with items than there is in Spelunky. With BoI at first it’s fun to try and get as far as you can when dealt a shitty hand in terms of items but this soon becomes tiresome and when I gained more experience I found myself stopping games early as I knew continuing would be futile (which eventually ceased being fun). With Spelunky on the other hand with further experience I always felt that even given a tough scenario there was still a chance of extricating myself from it (and at worst I’d be wasting 10-15 minutes on a futile run instead of a far longer period with BoI).

      That’s the difference for me, Spelunky is more weighted towards giving you hope.

      I guess the other tack would be to make failing feel more like an epic engrossing battle even when it is inevitable, which is something that FTL did particularly well.

      Anyway, both games I poured absolute hours into and it feels somewhat churlish to try and pick one that’s better!

  6. Toupee says:

    Love Spelunky! Great article. I only discovered the game around the beginning of this year and it’s probably my most-played game of the year.

  7. kav2k says:

    Actually, the whip strikes a tiny bit above the character, on a tune of two “pixels”. So, if well-timed, you can whack a bat directly above you.

  8. Devenger says:

    One of my favourite discoveries was learning that ropes are a (one damage) vertical attack. In a tight spot and need to kill an attacker that’s above you? Throw a rope. (Of course, ropes are a limited resource, not to be used lightly unless you have other mobility options…)

    Spelunky is so sharp in design, I lose all my health and die whenever I fall onto it at any speed.

  9. Suits says:

    You deal with bats with Dave Lang’s Bat-Tech link to youtube.com

    • HilariousCow says:

      :D !

      It’s funny how that’s so similar to fighting games. Just intersecting damage boxes and hit boxes.

      link to youtube.com

      Like, changing the size or duration of a box can completely change how you approach a game – just this tiny spatial tweak. It still stuns me how versatile this kind of system is.

  10. Crusoe says:

    My problem with Spelunky was what I perceived as a lack of atmosphere and standard, boring visuals.

    I couldn’t imagine any reason to keep playing when I could be playing Teleglitch, Isaac or Risk of Rain.

    • Veovis Muaddib says:

      Yep. Boring visuals and lack of atmosphere. That’s exactly what I think of when I see UFOs fly around shooting yeti below in an underground ice-filled cavern laden with mines.

      Or when I see Anubis the Egyptian god of the Afterlife blowing purple bubbles of death at me as the nearby lava pool boils over and takes human form purely to hunt me down.

      Or when I visit a haunted castle hidden deep within the jungle, containing a black knight who crushes you with their mighty shield.

      Or when I allow myself to be devoured by Shai-Hulud and navigate the bacterium, hatchlings, stomach acid, and teeth within in order to acquire a crysknife.

      Or when I visit the alien mothership within the ice caves and wrest a plasma cannon from the tentacled psychic alien overlords intent on liquefying my brains.

      Or when I literally go to hell and fight Yama himself enthroned upon a pillar of rubies, dodging the falling skulls of those who came before me.

    • Klydefrog says:

      Wow, I really couldn’t disagree more. Especially as I feel that Teleglitch has a pretty dull visual style and although Risk of Rain is a bit nicer-looking it’s still in that modern pixel art mould that I find is a bit tired now. Clearly we have very different tastes but I find it hard to believe anyone could dislike the visual style or animation of Spelunky, the remake at least. I mean the ice caves are just beautiful, especially the Yeti King stage with that sublime music.

  11. Shazbut says:

    Trying to find a way to crowbar in a reference to Calvin’s (c&h) legendary book report on bats

    • El Goose says:

      Well, although the bats in Spelunky are incredibly frustrating, they are, as far as I am aware, an intentional part of the game’s design rather than an unpredicted element that arose due to errors in the original coding. Thus these bats are most assuredly not bugs.

  12. Monkeh says:

    Or you just could keep a rock/other item with you at all times. ;)

    But yeah, Spelunky is a great roguelike, though IMO Binding of Isaac is better, if not for the simple fact that Spelunky’s predictability gets boring to me after a while.

  13. Veovis Muaddib says:

    Graham Smith, while I enjoy the article, I did want to bring two things to your attention.

    First, the whip is first brought back behind and slightly above the player’s head prior to lashing forward. You can use this to kill bats and other jumping/falling enemies before they damage you.

    Second, the grappling hook on the ropes will do a point of damage to anything it passes through on its way up. In a dire emergency this can be used to attack directly upward. I have killed Anubis with this tactic, and it’s saved me in the Olmec fight when I’m down in the hole with Olmec and the enemies he spawns are falling down toward me.

    Also, while we’re talking about cool things the whip does, it’s worth noting that if you time it right you can whip arrows from the arrow traps out of the air. I keep the run button pressed (Well, the latest update allowed me to invert the run button, which I promptly did) and many times when an arrow starts flying toward me I’ve managed to neutralize it before it hits me. Granted, I’ve also missed several times, and sometimes I’ll even succeed in whipping it out of the air just to hit it into a wall where it bounces back into me.

  14. Gargenville says:

    Through vigorous navel gazing I’ve come to understand I’m the kind of person who cares about the ‘tactile’ sensation of a game a whole lot more than is apparently the norm, and in that area Spelunky(HD) is in the like, top 25 of all time. This is also why I get really upset whenever it gets lumped in with the rest of the roguelite avalanche because most of them feel like stepping barefoot into a casserole.

  15. Enkinan says:

    I’m surprised the timer for the levels wasn’t mentioned, which forces you to have to make these decisions faster instead of standing around, which gives your brain that little tickle of impending doom if you start taking your time a bit too much.

    • Toupee says:

      Not to mention how the timer affects things when you discover what you can do with the ghost…